“People with Asperger’s want contact with other people very much; we’re just pathetically clueless at it, that’s all”. (Donald Morton)
The fact that 50% of American marriages end in divorce demonstrates how challenging relationships are even under the best circumstance. Add to the equation two individuals on the Autism spectrum trying to make a relationship work and the story becomes more complex and tragic. In the film, Mozart and the Whale, directed by Peter Naess, the two main characters Donald Morton and Isabelle Sorrenson have a relationship and try to adapt to each other. Throughout the film, they fall in and out of love with each other and with the help of their friends, they find a way to make the relationship work. Even though the entire film provides great insight and examples of individuals with neurological challenges, it is the story of Donald Morton that truly demonstrates the struggles and challenges of love.
Donald Morton is the main character that either has high functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome. He demonstrates some savant like characteristics, particularly in math. Even though portraying the character with savant abilities is often overdone and provides a misrepresentation of individuals with autism, Donald is interesting and his strong problem solving abilities add to his likability. He demonstrates many of the characteristics of individuals with autism. He has challenges in communication, specifically with nonverbal communication, and his rigidity and hording tendencies can be difficult to deal with on a daily basis. He also has a fixation on animals, particularly whales. These traits are autistic characteristics found in many individuals with the diagnosis.
Donald Morton desires to be “normal” and connect with people around him. This is seen with the introductory quote in the paper. He wants friends and social connections so badly that he creates a support group with people with autism spectrum disorders so he can have friends. This support group demonstrates clearly how spectrum disorders manifest differently in each person. Each person is quirky with their own special characteristics. No two people in the support group are the same. This group becomes a way for these individuals to connect socially. Donald, like the other characters, has a lot of ups and downs throughout the movie which you could argue is in correlation with his autism. This is seen clearly right at the beginning with his job as a taxi driver. He crashes into the back of a van and because of his autism, he cannot handle the stress of the situation and he gets out of the car and walks home. This is not the first time or the last time he shuts down when he is in emotional overload. It is a common characteristic of a person with autism spectrum disorder.
Unfortunately, I know that he is responding to his difficulties associated with his disability, but the average person with limited knowledge of autism does not. My son, age 22, watched the movie with me and until we talked about how autism manifests in individuals, he originally felt that Morton just didn’t care. In fact, my son couldn’t believe that Morton could walk away so nonchalantly. He did not get why I felt so bad for him and not angry. He thought that if he did the same thing, I would be screaming at him for walking away. When I explained it wasn’t apathy that forced him to leave but rather a coping mechanism to deal with emotional overload, he seemed to get it, but I don’t think he was entirely convinced. This clearly demonstrates how far we still need to go to provide peers with understanding of individuals with autism.
Besides our differences in opinion about Donald’s emotional overload issues, we also disagreed about autism affecting the relationship with Isabelle. Having a young man’s perspective was valuable in understanding the true love story. My son felt that Donald’s experience with Isabelle was not so different than most men. The autism only made it a slightly more exaggerated version of what really happens. Although my son did see where the autism plays a role in the stress of the relationship, he felt a lot of what Donald was feeling was similar to what his friends and he experienced with women in their lives. He felt it wasn’t just an “autism” thing but a man/women thing that created a lot of the strife. The confusion of trying to understand what women want and how to give it to them was very stressful and confusing for him. He could relate to Donald and his need to make Isabelle happy. He even joked that he must have autism because he has done a lot of the same “stupid” stuff that Donald did regarding Isabelle. He felt that, often, he was forced to make sacrifices, just like Donald, to keep the relationship in harmony. What was clearly “autistic moments” to me was only confusion of the sexes to him. It definitely caused me to open my eyes to the messiness of falling in love and finding the happy balance to sustain a relationship, especially from a male’s perspective.
Just like my son was not entirely convinced that sensory overload could cause a person to flee a scene. I was not entirely convinced all the messiness in Donald and Isabelle’s relationship was just his theory of the dichotomy of men and women in early relationship love. There were clearly autistic moments that hindered the relationship. One scene where this was glaring was the conversation between Donald and Isabelle about why he didn’t call. I could see Isabelle’s pain and anger about not calling and Donald’s confusion because he felt he was helping her by not calling. Donald could not work past the mixed messages and Isabelle could not truly convey her feelings directly. It was definitely the emotional blind leading the emotional blind. The seen was comical but in a tragic and sardonic way. Would this same scenario occur with neuro-typical young adults? My son says yes, and he felt it would just be a more watered down version or it would be less exaggerated. I am not so sure. I think the degree or the exaggeration in this scene is exactly what causes the autism to get in the way.
Although, my son can relate, he can never truly experience the pain and frustration of the situation because he understands the scenario better than Donald. Although the feelings are the same, my son knows exactly what is going on in the fight and for the most part he understands why the situation is challenging. He can read his girlfriend’s body language and often can identify what is making her angry or frustrated. With Donald and Isabelle, they don’t know why the situation is going wrong, they just know that it is. They know it doesn’t feel right, but they can’t quite figure why it is off. This is the part that my son can’t comprehend. He feels Donald’s pain and frustration and can relate it to his own, but Donald’s pain and frustration has many more layers that my son can’t begin to understand this because he is a neuro-typical man that understands hidden scripts and scenes.
Overall, it was a great journey from me in trying to understand Donald and his quest for normalcy and love. The autism gets in the way. Love is great, exhilarating and exciting; however, it is messy, confusing and transforming. This is challenging for anybody going through it. Add communication issues and autism characteristics and the relationship just quickly become more difficult. The movie provides a snapshot of the challenges and obstacles that Donald and Isabelle face while maneuvering through the battlefield of love while managing their own challenges that an autism diagnosis gives them. The ending shows a Thanksgiving dinner and how they got married and figured it out, but I don’t see how that happened. I love the Hollywood ending, but I would appreciated the journey to show how they got there, would have been more realistic. It was a magic wand ending, but one that felt good all the same. The ending of the film was the ultimate message for people and especially for individuals with autism seeking relationships: love conquers all.